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Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish and Shrimp Observer Program

Providing onboard monitoring of selected fisheries to observe impacts of one fishery on other fisheries and protected species.


Observer participating in safety training wearing a survival suit.

The long-term objectives of the fishery observer programs are to provide onboard monitoring of selected fisheries and to observe impacts of one fishery on other fisheries and protected species. The fishery observer program has existed since 1987 and was originally developed to provide an economic evaluation of turtle excluder devices commonly called TEDs in shrimp trawls. Onboard observers monitor shrimp trawl, and reef fish trap and longline vessels.

Shrimp Observer Program

The continuing goals of the mandatory observer programs are to provide quantitative biological, vessel, and gear selectivity information for the southeastern shrimp fishery. The primary objectives are to:

  • Provide general fishery bycatch characterization and catch rates for finfish species by area and target species.

  • Provide catch rates that can be used to estimate protected species bycatch levels. 

Learn more about sea turtle interactions observed in the southeast shrimp fisheries

Because finfish were accidentally being caught in shrimp trawls, federal management actions sought to find ways to rebuild affected finfish stocks. Scientists and gear specialists developed and evaluated more than 150 bycatch reduction device styles.

Bycatch reduction devices are why a voluntary observer program still exists. Observer data are used to determine the success of bycatch reduction device designs. Their research evaluates the performances of bycatch reduction devices during commercial shrimping operations. Catch rates of finfish and shrimp in nets equipped with bycatch reduction and turtle excluder devices are compared to nets equipped with TEDs only. Because of this, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council requires observer coverage of federally permitted vessels.

The shrimp fishery operates year round in the Gulf of Mexico, with the highest effort occurring from May through December. Trawls catch brown shrimp off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, white shrimp in the same areas, pink shrimp off southwestern Florida in the winter months, and rock shrimp off the east coast of Florida. Currently, there are 1,467 federally permitted vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 534 penaeid and 106 rock shrimp federal permit holders in the South Atlantic. Observer coverage of the entire southeastern shrimp fishery is about 2 percent.


  • 1992
    A cooperative research plan starts to identify, develop, and evaluate gear options to reduce bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic shrimp fisheries.

  • 1997, 1998, 2004
    Bycatch reduction devices required in federal waters of the South Atlantic, the western Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

  • 2007
    The Southeast Fisheries Science Center begins a mandatory observer program for the commercial shrimp fishery operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

  • 2008
    Observer coverage expands to include the South Atlantic penaeid and rock shrimp fisheries.

Reef Fish Observer Program

The continuing goal of the current observer program is to provide quantitative biological,
vessel, and gear selectivity information relative to the directed reef fish fishery. The specific
objectives are to:

  • Provide general fishery bycatch characterization for finfish species taken by this fishery.

  • Estimate managed finfish discard and release mortality levels.

  • Estimate protected species bycatch levels.

Observers conduct reef fish bycatch research due to overfished stocks. The goal of this research is to document catch rates of retained and discarded reef fish species by area, season, and gear type. Observers also document mortality rates of discarded species. This research aims to rebuild overfished fisheries, maintain productive fisheries, and reduce bycatch.

This fishery consists of about 890 federally permitted vessels. Primary gears used include bottom longline, vertical line (bandit or handline), and more recently, modified buoy gear. Although many reef fish species are retained, the predominant target species are groupers and snappers. Longline fishermen off the coast of Florida generally target red grouper in shallow waters, and in deeper waters yellowedge grouper, tilefish, and sharks. Vertical line vessel operators target shallow‐water grouper (e.g. red grouper), red snapper, and may also seek yellowedge grouper and vermilion snapper.


  • 1984
    The Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan launches to rebuild declining reef fish stocks.

  • 1993
    The Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Galveston Laboratory starts a voluntary observer program to characterize the fish trap, bottom longline, and bandit reel fisheries in the United States Gulf of Mexico.

  • 1993-1995
    Observer coverage of the commercial reef fish fishery operates primarily off the west coast of Florida and, to a lesser extent, off Louisiana.

  • 2006
    In collaboration with the commercial fishing industry and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the Southeast Fisheries Science Center starts a mandatory observer program to characterize the commercial reef fishery operating in the United States Gulf of Mexico.

  • 2007
    An individual fishing quota program for the commercial red snapper fishery launches.

  • 2009
    An emergency rule to protect sea turtles goes into effect prohibiting the use of bottom longline gear east of Cape San Blas, Florida. Changes prohibit bottom longline gear east of Cape San Blas, Florida, from June through August, reduce the number of vessels, and restrict the number of hooks onboard to 1,000, of which only 750 can be rigged for fishing.

  • 2010
    An individual fishing quota program for the grouper and tilefish fisheries launches.

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on April 13, 2022

Observer Program